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May 28, 2024

Columbia cancels universitywide commencement ceremony after weeks of protests on campus

Columbia University will replace its universitywide commencement ceremony on May 15 with “smaller-scale, school-based celebrations,” university officials announced Monday after weeks of pro-Palestinian and counterprotests on campus.

The Ivy League school in New York City said the decision was made after discussions with student leaders. Security concerns were the main reason behind the decision, a university official told NBC News.

“Our students emphasized that these smaller-scale, school-based celebrations are most meaningful to them and their families,” the university said Monday. “They are eager to cross the stage to applause and family pride and hear from their school’s invited guest speakers. As a result, we will focus our resources on those school ceremonies and on keeping them safe, respectful, and running smoothly.”

As a result, students will be “honored individually alongside their peers” at the smaller ceremonies. “Class Days” and school ceremonies scheduled on the south lawn of the Morningside campus have also been relocated to Columbia’s Baker Athletics Complex. 

“These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community. Just as we are focused on making our graduation experience truly special, we continue to solicit student feedback and are looking at the possibility of a festive event on May 15 to take the place of the large, formal ceremony,” university officials said.

Tents of student protesters on the south lawn of Columbia University on April 30.Mary Altaffer / AP

“We are eager to all come together for our graduates and celebrate our fellow Columbians as they, and we, look ahead to the future,” they said.Come May 15, graduation ceremonies for the journalism school, the college of physicians and surgeons, Barnard College and the school of arts will take place at different times at different locations, according to a schedule released by Columbia. Other school-based ceremonies will take place throughout next week, as well.

Pro-Palestinian protests sprouted on campus April 17 when students pitched about 50 tents while demanding a cease-fire in Gaza and insisting the university divest from companies that they say could be profiting from the war.

New York City police officers clad in riot gear arrived on campus last Tuesday evening at the request of university administrators and forced their way into the barricaded Hamilton Hall, which protesters had taken over and renamed Hind’s Hall, after a 6-year-old Palestinian girl who was killed in Gaza. The encampment was cleared, and more than 100 people were arrested.

Demonstrators on Columbia’s campus barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall on April 30.Alex Kent / Getty Images

The arrests have shaken confidence in university President Minouche Shafik among some students and faculty members at Columbia. In a letter asking for New York police assistance to clear Hamilton Hall, she said the occupation “left us no choice.”In its request for police assistance, Columbia asked the police department to stay on campus until at least May 17, two days after commencement.

A source at the university had said Columbia was rethinking its commencement ceremony. After a meeting with top university leaders Friday, two members of the student government said administrators indicated they are not sure they can hold a commencement ceremony on the main Morningside Heights campus in Manhattan because of security concerns.

Protests similar to the one at Columbia quickly appeared at college campuses across the country, concerning administrations about their commencement ceremonies, as well.

On Saturday, students waved Palestinian flags during the University of Michigan’s commencement. Banners in the sky displayed messages such as “DIVEST FROM ISRAEL NOW! FREE PALESTINE!” and “WE STAND WITH ISRAEL JEWISH LIVES MATTER.”In a statement issued afterward, the university’s assistant vice president for public affairs, Colleen Mastony, said about 75 protesters staged a demonstration at the beginning of the program by walking up to the main aisle and chanting. Public safety personnel escorted them to the rear of the stadium, where they stayed until commencement ended. There were no arrests, Mastony said in a statement.

Last month, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles said it was canceling its main commencement ceremony, scheduled for this Friday, which was to have included a keynote address from alumnus Jon M. Chu, director of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and a presentation of honorary degrees to tennis star Billie Jean King and others.

The university previously canceled a commencement speech by a Muslim valedictorian following controversy over her social media posts about Israel’s war in Gaza. But USC said it would still host individual school commencement ceremonies and other related events.

Antonia Hylton

Antonia Hylton is a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.

Mirna Alsharif

Breaking news reporter

Marlene Lenthang

Breaking News Reporter

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